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Romans 7:1-3
N Romans 7:2, 3 Paul adduces the law respecting marriage
as an illustration by which t o commend to the under-
standing of his readers the doctrine respecting the effect of
the death of Christ upon the relation of the believer to the
law and to Christ. I t is not necessary for the purpose now in
view to discuss the rather difficult exegetical question involved
in the similitude Paul uses. Those acquainted with the exe-
getical literature on these verses know how interpreters have
laboured with the question of determining what, in the doc-
trine Paul is enunciating, is parallel t o the death of the hus-
band in the similitude instituted. The relevance of this passage
to the question of divorce need not be perplexed, however, by
t hat other exegetical question. The question we are concerned
with now is simply the bearing of this passage upon the
matter of divorce.
I n reference to this precise question it is of importance to
note t hat Paul is not dealing here expressly with the question
of marriage and separation as he is in I Corinthians 7:10-15.
The subject with which Paul is here dealing is the expansion
and validation of what he had stated in Romans 6:14 t hat
sin does not have dominion over the believer, for he is not
Correction. I regret that in preceding articles of this series when I quoted
from and cited the article "Divorce" in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. V,
I gave the author as Walter George Smith. This was an error and was due
to oversight. The name should have been Aug. Lehmkuhl. Walter George
Smith wrote the latter part of the article on "Divorce" but was not the
author of the part which was cited and from which quotation was given.
Apology is hereby tendered to The Catholic Encyclopedia.
under law but under grace. The appeal to the law of mar-
riage, specifically the law of marriage as it applies to the
wife, is for the purpose of illustration. The death of the
husband frees the wife from the law of her husband. So the
death of Christ frees the believer from bondage to the law.
I t is necessary to stress this only-too-obvious fact. While
on the one hand, we must not allow this consideration to
obscure or rule out the significance of this passage as it bears
upon the law of marriage, yet, on the other hand, we must not
forget that the allusion to the law of marriage is incidental to
Paul's main purpose. We must not fall into the mistake of
loading his illustration with more significance than reasonably
belongs to it in the context.
When Paul says in verse 1 that "the law has dominion
over a man for so long a time as he lives"
we may properly
regard him as intending to state a general principle. He is not
referring specifically to the marriage law which in verses 2
and 3 is adduced as an example. Rather, the case is that he
states the general principle in verse 1 and illustrates by a
particular example in verses 2 and 3. He credits his readers
at Rome with knowledge of that general principle and assumes
that they will readily accede to its universal validity. The
reason why he credits them with this knowledge and with
ready acceptance is that they know the law.
This appeal to their knowledge of the law raises a question
that has considerable relevance to our discussion. What is the
law with the knowledge of which Paul credits his readers? I t
cannot reasonably be supposed that it is simply the general
principle which he has just stated. Paul credits them, rather,
with knowledge of the law in some more embracive sense and
KvpieUi ' ffl. It should be
noted that this is generic. The use of * rather than indicates
that he is not suggesting the dominion of the law over the man as dis-
tinguished from the woman. It is the dominion of the law over human-
kind. In verses 2 and 3 he distinguishes between the man and the woman
by the use of the distinguishing terms and and applies the general
principle of verse 1 to the marriage law as it governs the woman.
The commentators have shown that Paul is not here distinguishing
between those at Rome who knew the law and those who did not. All
addressed are credited with this knowledge. The reasons for this conclusion
need not be discussed here.
then, on that assumption, protests that their knowledge of
that law should lead them readily to recognise the validity of
the general principle, namely, that law has dominion over a
man as long as he lives. When appeal is made in this way to
knowledge of law there is one feasible conclusion, namely,
that the law is the written law of the Old Testament, particu-
larly the Mosaic law. Paul uses the word "law" ()
quite frequently in this sense (cf. 3:19; 5:13; I Cor. 9:8, 9;
14:21, 24; Gal. 3:10, 19), and there is no reason why we
should look for the denotation in any other direction. Gen-
tiles as well as Jews in the church at Rome could be credited
with knowledge of the Old Testament and specifically with
knowledge of the Mosaic law. So we may proceed on the
assumption that this is the law Paul has in mind when he
says, "for I speak to them who know the law".
This conclusion bears upon the force of the example Paul
adduces in verses 2 and 3. If the Mosaic law is in view in
verse 1 and if Paul proceeds with his argument on the assump-
tion that his readers are acquainted with that law, we cannot
but regard the very example which he adduces in verses 2
and 3 as in like manner elicited from, or at least borne out by,
the Mosaic law.
We may not suppose, however, that such respect to the
Mosaic law in any way weakens or curtails the validity and
application of the law regarding marriage expressed in verses
2 and 3. The universal validity should be apparent for two
reasons. (1) The general principle stated in verse 1 is one
which Paul recognises as having unqualified validity, and
surely the example by which he illustrates must have similar
validity within its own specific sphere of operation. There
would have been a non sequitur in Paul's argument if the
illustration did not exemplify in a particular case the applica-
tion of the general principle. (2) If the illustration did not
carry out the general principle, this failure would react fatally
upon the doctrine being propounded. It is the example drawn
from marriage that Paul uses to illustrate our bondage to the
law and then our freedom from the law by the body of Christ.
If the analogy in the marital sphere were not watertight, how
would it fare for the doctrine which is Paul's main interest at
this point? We must conclude, therefore, that the law respect-
ing the bond of marriage referred to in verses 2 and 3, even
though it is viewed as inherent in and elicited from the Mosaic
law, is not for that reason impaired in respect of its universal
validity and application.
The significance of this insistence needs to be stated and
developed if we are to interpret aright the bearing of this
passage on the subject of divorce. Since Paul states a principle
of universal validity and application, a principle that applies
to marriage as such, we are not to suppose that the law
enunciated here is merely the law of marriage that applies
within the pale of special revelation. Truly the Mosaic law
was special revelation and Paul had that in mind when he
adduced the law of marriage. But this fact must not be
allowed to lead us to the fallacy, too frequently and oftentimes
surreptitiously at work, that since appeal is made to special
revelation this restricts the application of the principle to
those who are the recipients and beneficiaries of that revela-
tion. What Paul enunciates here is the basic law of marriage
which applies to the institution wherever it exists, in other
words, the law of Genesis 2:23, 24. Those who had the Mosaic
law were indeed placed in a peculiarly advantageous position
respecting the knowledge of that law. But the operation and
obligation of the law are not restricted to the sphere in which
it is thus known. The law binds wherever the institution
exists, and is to the effect that the woman is bound by the law
of her husband as long as he lives, that if while he lives she be
married to another she will be called an adulteress but that
when her husband dies she is free from that law and may be
married to another.
This passage and the principle it embodies have been ap-
pealed to by Romish exegetes and theologians,* as well as by
others who adopt a similar position, in support of the conten-
tion that marriage is indissoluble and that not even in the case
of adultery may marriage be dissolved, although the spouses
3 Cf. Robert Bellarmine: "De Sacramento Matrimonii," Lib. I, Cap.
XVI (Disputationes, Rome, 1838, Tom. 3, pp. 1148 ff.); Joseph Pohle:
The Sacraments: A Dogmatic Treatise (St. Louis and London, 1937), Vol.
IV, p. 192; Arthur Devine: The Law of Christian Marriage (New York,
1908), pp. 92 ff.; A Commentary on the New Testament (The Catholic
Biblical Association, 1942), pp. 52 f.
may, in this case, be separated a toro et mensa. I n the preceding
articles of this series the position has been taken, particularly
on the basis of Ma!tthew 19:9, that marriage may be dissolved
for the cause of adultery and in the event of such dissolution
the innocent spouse is at liberty to contract another marriage.
The question is now very acutely before us: how does such a
position comport with what we have just found respecting the
import of Romans 7:2, 3? How can we answer the argument
of Rome and of Protestant theologians, such as those of the
Church of England, that not even adultery is a proper ground
for dissolution of the marriage bond (divortium a vinculo
matrimonii as distinguished from divortium a toro et mensa)!
For has not this text asserted very distinctly that it is leath
that frees from the bond of marriage and that the woman who
is married to another while her husband lives shall be called
an adulteress? The answer to this question will require a
rather diffuse discussion.
The first observation to be made is that the appeal to this
text on the part of the Romish Church, on the one hand, and
other contentions and practices of Rome, on the other, are
singularly incompatible. Since it is not claimed that similar
inconsistency can be charged against the Church of England
and its representatives, we shall focus attention on the Romish
position. Though Rome vigorously contends for the indis-
solubility of the bond (quoad vinculum) of marriage she allows
for the dissolution of unconsummated marriage between Chris-
tians in two events: (1) in the event of solemn profession of
either party in a religious order and (2) in the event of papal
Since in such cases the dissolution is a vinculo
and not merely a toro et mensa and since, therefore, the mar-
riage is dissolved, it follows that the party not making solemn
profession in a religious order is at liberty to marry another
and in the case of special papal dispensation both parties to
the dissolution are at liberty to remarry. But how can such
concessions be reconciled with Rome's appeal to Romans 7:2, 3
4 Cf. Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Session XXIV, Canon
6; Bellarmine: "De Monachisi Lib. II, Cap. XXXVIII (op. cit., Tom. 2,
pp. 405 ff.); Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae (New York, 1943), Tom. Ill,
"De Paenitentia et Matrimonio", pp. 161 ff.; Joseph Pohle: op. cit., pp.
201 ff.; Arthur Devine: op. cit., pp. 89 ff.
in support of the indissolubility of the marriage bond? If
Romans 7:2, 3 allows for such exceptions, then the passage
must be regarded as compatible with some exception and,
consequently, cannot with propriety be quoted and cited in
support of the proposition that the only thing that can dissolve
the marriage bond is death.
For even on Rome's own assump-
tions Romans 7:2, 3 does admit of dissolution and of freedom
to remarry in certain cases. In the precise terms of the
passage itself, Rome allows that there are cases in which the
woman may remarry while her first husband lives and yet not
be branded as an adulteress. If this is so, how can Rome so
easily appeal to Romans 7:2, 3 as supporting the doctrine of
the indissolubility of the bond of marriage? Conceivably
Rome might be quite consistent in maintaining her own pecul-
iar doctrine of indissolubility and of the exceptions she allows
in particular cases. What is being urged now is simply that
she has fallen into inexcusable inconsistency when, in the
defence of her own position and in opposition to dissolution
on the ground of adultery, she appeals to Romans 7:2, 3 and
then forthwith makes her own exceptions which as gravely
impinge upon the principle asserted by Paul as does the excep-
tion in the case of adultery.
The upshot is that Rome has
no right of appeal to Romans 7:2, 3 to disprove the right of
dissolution in the case of adultery as long as she herself
claims the legitimacy of dissolution in the case of solemn
profession in a religious order and in the case of papal dis-
pensation unless she undertakes to present grounds for believ-
ing that Paul can well be regarded as envisaging the kind of
exception Rome posits but not the kind of exception which we
s Cf. Joseph Pohle: op. cit., p. 192.
Though at this point we have spoken of divorce for adultery as an
exception to Romans 7:2, 3, we are not to be understood as conceding
that this is, strictly speaking, the proper construction or the most accurate
terminology. We have used these terms at this point because we are
conducting an ad hominem argument and do not wish to perplex the force
or point of the argument by using terms which we deem more adequate to
the proper interpretation. The concessions Rome makes in reference to
solemn profession and papal dispensation will certainly have to be con-
sidered exceptions to Romans 7:2, 3 if we proceed on the premise of the
kind of appeal she makes to the passage concerned.
maintain. And this is an undertaking that Romish theologians
do not appear to fulfil.
It may be replied that, in arguing thus, sufficient account
has not been taken of the distinction which Rome draws
between unconsummated and consummated marriage. While
we are not disposed to suppress or discount the significance of
the conjugal act by which marriage is consummated, yet, as
far as the principle of Romans 7:2, 3 and its application are
concerned, what evidence do we possess from Scripture in
general or from Paul in particular to warrant the assumption
that a sharp line of distinction is to be drawn between consum-
mated and unconsummated marriage? We can well under-
stand how such a sharp line of distinction could be maintained
if it were held that unconsummated marriage is not really
marriage in terms of Romans 7:2,3. In that event the principle
of Romans 7:2, 3 would apply only to consummated marriage
and would not come into operation until marriage is consum-
mated by the conjugal act. On such a view Romans 7:2, 3
would have no relevance at all to unconsummated marriage.
But not even Rome takes that position.? Indeed, so far is this
from being the case that she is very jealous to restrict the
right of dissolution of unconsummated marriage between
Christians to the two exceptional cases of solemn profession in
a religious order and special papal dispensation. In all other
cases, according to Rome, the principle of Romans 7:2, 3
remains inviolate and applies to all other unconsummated
marriages just as rigidly as it does to consummated marriages.
It follows therefore that Rome regards Romans 7:2, 3 as
applicable to unconsummated marriage. And so we are com-
pelled to press the question again: where is the evidence to
show that Paul could be properly regarded as envisaging or
allowing the circumstance that marriage had not yet been
consummated by the conjugal act as legitimating the suspen-
sion of the principle of Romans 7:2, 3 in the two exceptional
cases alleged by Rome? And to press the question one step
further, what warrant is there for supposing that Paul could
Cf. Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae as cited; Joseph Pohle: op. cit.,
pp. 184 ff. The latter says, *'Every marriage between baptised persons,
whether consummated or not, is intrinsically indissoluble" (p. 184).
have granted the propriety of certain exceptions in the case of
unconsummated marriage and yet could not possibly be re-
garded as envisaging any exception to consummated marriage?
Apologists for the Romish position must surely find it difficult
to discover any Biblical evidence to substantiate their conten-
tion. That is to say, they must find it hard to find warrant for
the sharp line of distinction drawn on this question between
consummated and unconsummated marriage so long as they
concede that Romans 7:2, 3 has relevance to unconsummated
as well as to consummated marriage. The plain fact is that
Romish theologians waive appeal to Scripture when they pro-
ceed to validate the exceptions claimed. They appeal rather
to tradition and to the primacy of the Roman pontiff.
once this is done it is apparent that appeal to Scripture is no
longer necessary. I t is equally apparent that the kind of
evidence upon which we insist is not forthcoming and is really
not available. I n other words, the Scripture itself does not
support the Romish position on the question now at issue and,
as far as argument based on Scripture is concerned, the Romish
appeal to Romans 7:2, 3 is patently inconsistent. This incon-
sistency should be obvious to any Protestant, for it is an
inconsistency demonstrated by the very logic inherent in the
necessity of appeal to tradition and to the primacy of the
pontiff, a necessity fully acknowledged by Romanists them-
We must, however, carry the argument as it respects
Rome's appeal to Romans 7:2, 3 one step further. This con-
cerns I Corinthians 7:15. Rome claims the right of dissolution
a vinculo in the instance of what is called the Pauline privilege.
I n this case the right of dissolution applies even to consum-
mated marriage, though not, of course, to consummated mar-
riage between Christians. The Pauline privilege has reference
merely to what Rome calls marriage legitimum and consum-
matum but not ratum. I t should be understood that our
argument in reference to the Romish position at this point is
not premised on any necessary disagreement with the Romish
Cf. Joseph Pohle: op. cit., pp. 201 ff.; Arthur Devine: op. cit., pp. 90 f.
Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae as cited, pp. 155 ff.; Joseph Pohle:
op. cit., pp. 208 ff.; Arthur Devine: op. cit., pp. 85 ff.; A Commentary on
the New Testament as cited, pp. 460 f.,
interpretation of I Corinthians 7:15 other than to dissent
emphatically from the indefensible extensions given to the
Pauline privilege in Romish application. The arbitrary ampli-
given to this privilege by Rome's officiai spokesmen
betrays the laxity of interpretation and of application which
Rome can conveniently avow and shows the practical nullity
thereby afforded to her vaunted strictness in the matter of
marital sanctity. But apart from the question of Romish
looseness in these regards, all that needs to be recognised at
present is that Rome sanctions the right of divorce in the case
of I Corinthians 7:15 and that we are not now concerned to
dispute the propriety of this interpretation per se.
The question is: how does this affect the interpretation of
Romans 7:2, 3 and, in particular, Rome's appeal to this pas-
sage in support of the indissolubility of the marriage bond?
It is not needless to mention that I Corinthians 7:15 is no less
Pauline than Romans 7:2, 3. Apart from the question of the
chronology of the composition of these two epistles (a matter
not without bearing upon the whole question of harmony),
the inspiration and authority of Paul's teaching, even on
Rome's own presuppositions, would require us to maintain
the complete harmony of the two passages. I Corinthians
7:15 is compatible with Romans 7:2, 3. But when Paul
penned Romans 7:2, 3 he made no allusion to I Corinthians
7:15; the terms of the former passage are quite absolute and
universal and, in themselves, suggest or express no exception.
How are we to explain this on the assumption that there is in
reality the exception of I Corinthians 7:15?
At this point it is well to bear in mind what has been argued
above respecting the universal obligation and application of
Romans 7:2, 3. It will not do to say that here Paul has in
view a principle that is applicable only to Christian marriage,
to use Rome's terminology, marriage ratum as distinguished
from marriage that is merely legitimum. Paul surely states a
principle that applies to the institution of marriage as such
and to restrict it to marriage between Christians would open
the door to abuses that would run completely counter to the
See Joseph Pohle: op. cit., pp. 211 ff.; Arthur Devine: op. cit., pp.
87 f.; Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae, pp. 157 ff.
sanctity which the Scripture recognises as belonging to all
valid and legitimate marriage, a sanctity which will have to
be recognised as implicit ii\ the teaching of Paul in the immedi-
ately preceding context of I Corinthians 7:15, namely verses
12-14, as well as in Romans 7:2, 3. I t is quite true that in
Romans 7:1 Paul has in mind the Mosaic law when he says to
his readers, ' Tor I speak to them that know the law", and he
assumes on that basis that they should readily acknowledge
the validity of the principle that the law has dominion over
a man as long as he lives. Furthermore, when he adduces his
example in verses 2 and 3 we shall have to suppose that the
Mosaic law is distinctly in view. That is just saying that
Paul has in view the special revelation of the Old Testament
as that which should place beyond dispute for his readers the
validity of the principle asserted in verse 1 and the specific
example of the application of that principle alluded to in
verses 2 and 3. But it by no means follows that it is only
within the area of the knowledge of that Mosaic law that the
general principle stated in verse 1 and the specific principle
enunciated in verses 2 and 3 are operative or applicable. I t
is one thing to appeal to special revelation to show that a
certain obligation rests upon men; it is another thing to hold
that the obligation rests only upon those who possess that
revelation. I n this particular case there is no ground for
believing that Paul regarded the principles set forth in Romans
7 :l-3 as applicable only to those who were in the advantageous
position of knowing the Mosaic law. Still further, if the
principles applied only to believers we can readily detect what
havoc this would entail for the doctrine that Paul proceeds
to unfold in verse 4. His doctrine is, in effect, that all men
are under the bondage of the law and are bound to that
bondage until they become dead to the law by the body of
Christ. How would it fare with this doctrine if the principle
of the analogy by which he illustrates the doctrine were not
as universal within its own specific sphere as the doctrine
itself? Consequently we must conclude that the principle, to
wit, that the married woman is bound by law to her husband
as long as he lives, must apply to marriage as such and there-
fore to the very marriage contemplated by Paul in I Corin-
thians 7:12-14. And so the question confronts us in all its
acuteness: how does the concession of I Corinthians 7:15, a
concession which Rome acknowledges is warrant for the
dissolution of the marriage bond, comport with Romans 7:2,3?
If Rome is to answer this question on the basis of Scripture
principles, she will have to admit that Paul recognises that
there is at least one exception to the rule of Romans 7:2, 3, in
other words, that there is one case where a woman may re-
marry prior to the death of her first husband and yet not be
called an adulteress. I t follows, therefore, on these premises,
that when we assert the principle of Romans 7:2, 3 we have
at the same time in mind this one exception and that Paul
likewise had it in mind. Yet because it was an extraordinary
and exceptional case and, within the orbit of its own peculiar
exigencies taken for granted, it was not necessary for Paul to
mention the exception and so could assert the principle in
terms which are in themselves absolute. So Rome should
have to admit that when Romans 7:2, 3 is cited to support the
indissolubility of the bond of consummated marriage there is
the tacit understanding that one exception holds good, namely,
the case of I Corinthians 7:15.
At the present time we are not again entering upon the
debate as to whether or not adultery is a proper ground for
the dissolution of the marriage bond. That question has been
debated earlier in this series. All that we wish to do now is
simply to show the non sequitur of the type of appeal Rome
makes to Romans 7:2, 3 in order to disprove the legitimacy
of dissolution on that ground. Once it is allowed that there
is any ground upon which the dissolution of consummated
marriage may take place (and this Rome admits in the in-
stance of the Pauline privilege), then Romans 7:2, 3 admits of
an exception. And if it admits of one exception, why may it
not also admit of another? If it admits of an exception there
cannot be any offhand appeal to Romans 7:2, 3 in support of
the indissolubility of the marriage bond as if its intent and
import were as absolute and exclusive as its express terms
appear to imply. But this is precisely the kind of use that
Rome makes of the passage in the polemic for her own doctrine
of indissolubility. This is what we must deem to be invalid
and unfair. I t is such for the simple reason that the citation of
Romans 7:2, 3 in this way creates the impression that Rome,
in contrast with those who claim dissolubility on the ground
of adultery, stands for the terms of Romans 7:2, 3 without
any equivocation or exception, when, as a matter of fact,
she herself entertains an exception which is just as directly an
exception to Romans 7:2, 3 as is the exception for the cause
of adultery. Rome, no more than traditional Protestants,
carries into operation the absolute and exceptionless terms
of Romans 7:2, 3. And she may not cite it and quote it as if
she did.
The question is, however, still before us: how are we to
reconcile Romans 7:2, 3 with the position taken in this series
of articles that adultery is a legitimate ground of divorce?
Our position in reference to this question is not as easy as it
might be if we took unequivocally the position of Rome
regarding the Pauline privilege. For then we could use the
argument pleaded above that there is at least one exception
and, if so, there is no reason why there should not also be a
second, provided the Scripture affords us sufficient evidence
in favour of that conclusion. We have taken the position that
while the preponderance of the evidence appears to support
the view that Paul contemplates dissolution in the precise
conditions envisaged in I Corinthians 7:15, yet we have not
dogmatically affirmed this to be the only feasible interpreta-
tion. Hence dogmatic appeal to I Corinthians 7:15 as provid-
ing a clear case of exception to the rule of Romans 7:2, 3
cannot be made, and we are compelled to limit ourselves to
the one exception, namely, adultery. We are keenly aware of
the difficulty which such a position involves, and we appreciate
anew the force that can be given to the question : do not the
absolute terms of Romans 7:2, 3 require us to revise our
conclusions respecting adultery as a valid ground of divorce
and, in particular, revise our interpretation of Matthew 19:9?
To this question we are still compelled to give a negative
answer. The reasons given earlier for interpreting Matthew
19:9 as legitimating divorce for adultery, we believe, are valid.
And hence we are now required to show why Romans 7:2, 3
does not demand a revision of that judgment.
As argued above, Paul asserts in Romans 7:2, 3 a basic law
respecting marriage, a law as universal in its obligation as is
the general principle that the law has dominion over a man
so long as he lives. This emphasis upon the basic character
of this law may seem to offer the one insuperable objection to
the supposition that adultery is a proper ground for divorce.
However much this may appear to be the case we cannot and
must not tone down the relentlessness of the law that a woman
is bound by the law of her husband as long as he lives. I t is,
strange as it may seem, this very feature that provides, in
our judgment, the key to the solution of our problem. I t is
our thesis that divorce for adultery does not interfere with
the unmitigated obligation and unrelenting principle to which
Paul gives expression in the passage concerned.
What Paul is stressing here is the binding law that governs
marriage. There is, it must be emphasised, in reality no excep-
tion to that law, and that is just saying that there is no
circumstance under which the woman may regard herself as
free from that law and at liberty to violate it. The woman
must always recognise that she is under the law of her husband
and that deviation from conjugal fidelity will mean for her
the sin and disgrace of adultery. This obligation to conjugal
fidelity continues throughout the whole life of her husband and
the very suggestion of exception to such a law would be an
ethical abomination.
I t should not be regarded, however, as incompatible with
this emphasis upon binding and invariable law to conceive of
the woman as being relieved from this law of her husband by
some kind of action for which she has no responsibility but
which involves a complete dereliction of fidelity and desecra-
tion of the sanctity of the marriage bond on the part of her
husband. And we can surely recognise that if, in such an
event, the woman were relieved from the law of her husband
and from the obligation to conjugal fidelity, this release would
not constitute a violation on her part of the principle and
obligation which we have repeatedly asserted to be the unvary-
ing law and rule of her conduct. For, in such a case, she would
not have transgressed the law of her husband nor would she
have done anything to release herself from that law: she would
be wholly the victim of the desecration of a relationship to
which she is party while in no sense party to the desecration
itself. I n other words, her relation to that unfaithful husband
may well be conceived of as radically altered without any
infringement on her part of the law that binds her, and so
radically altered that she may regard herself as released from
that law.
This is what we do find in the case of adultery. For, if
adultery gives to the innocent spouse the right of divorce and
remarriage, it means that the action on the part of the guilty
spouse has so radically affected the relationship that release is
thereby secured from the law that previously bound the inno-
cent party. Thinking in terms of the woman as the innocent
spouse this release is not properly conceived of, in the final
analysis, as an exception to the law of her husband but as an
abnormal and exceptional situation in view of which she may
be released from the law of her husband.
The question will be asked : why did not Paul make allow-
ance for this abnormal situation since it involves so notable
an exception to the rule, "So then if while her husband lives
she be married to another man she shall be called an adul-
teress"? The answer is that we can rather readily detect how
extraneous it would be to the purpose Paul had in mind and
how contrary it would be to the very principle he is asserting
to take into account the wholly abnormal and extreme con-
tingency of adultery. The fact is that the right of dissolution
on the ground of adultery is not really an exception to the
principle Paul is stating. The effect of divorce in the case of
adultery is not to suspend the operation of the principle and
of the obligation. The case is rather that adultery introduces
a new set of conditions under which the principle and obliga-
tion concerned may be regarded as no longer applicable in
respect of the innocent spouse." I n other words, the con-
tingency of perverse and wanton violation of marital sanctity
need not be taken into consideration when appeal is made to
the law that governs marriage. For when stress is laid on the
law that binds and upon the grievous wrong entailed in the
violation of that law the thought is focussed on the fulfilment
of all the conditions and proprieties inherent in the marital
It is precisely this situation that must be applied in the case of
I Corinthians 7:15 if we are to regard that passage as legitimating dissolution
of the bond of marriage. Otherwise such an interpretation of I Cor. 7:15
will have to be abandoned.
relation and obligation. I t would detract from this emphasis
to suggest what provisions may obtain for the person con-
cerned when a new complex of factors radically alters the
conditions presupposed in the assertion of the obligation. To
intimate the provisions for such an exceptional circumstance
would defeat, or at any rate perplex, the precise emphasis of
the apostle. This consideration should explain why there is
no allusion in this text or context to the right of divorce and
remarriage in the event of adultery on the part of the other
spouse and should show how this passage is compatible with
the view that divorce on that ground is legitimate. Although
divorce for adultery does contemplate a situation in which
the woman as the innocent party may marry another man and
yet not be called an adulteress, it is very questionable if this
may properly be spoken of as an exception to verse 3 as
envisioned here by the apostle. The rule as stated by Paul
has in view the fact that the woman is under obligation to
undeviating marital fidelity. To this obligation there is no
exception and the exceptionless character of the obligation is
enforced by the fact that if she does violate such fidelity she
shall be called an adulteress. The same principle applies, of
course, mutatis mutandis to the husband.
I t was said at an earlier stage of our discussion that in verses
2 and 3 Paul must still have in mind the provisions of the
Mosaic law, because he alludes to the Mosaic law in verse 1.
I t is possible, therefore, that Paul has in mind very specifically
the provisions of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. If so, then there is a
very ostensible reason why he should speak of the woman as
being bound to the law of her husband rather than of the man
as being bound to the law of his wife. According to the
Deuteronomy passage a man was permitted to put away his
wife, but no provision was in effect whereby a woman could
put away her husband. Hence Paul could speak only of the
wife as bound and not vice versa. If the interpretation and
application of verses 2 and 3 are thus conceived of very
strictly in terms of such Mosaic provisions, the relevance of
this passage to the whole question of divorce in the New
Testament is greatly decreased. For, in this event, Paul would
simply be eliciting from the Old Testament a specific example,
which was well-adapted to his purpose, to illustrate a specific
application of the general principle of verse 1. He could use it
to good advantage because it was familiar to his readers and
provided him also with an analogy well-suited to the purpose
of illustrating the doctrine of verse 4. The effect which such a
view would have upon the question now in debate can be
readily seen when we remember that, according to Deuter-
onomy 24:1-4, the woman, though not at liberty to divorce
her husband and though bound to him for life as far as any
action she could initiate was concerned, was nevertheless at
liberty to marry another if divorced by her husband. On
such remarriage she was not called, or regarded as, an adul-
teress. We can see, therefore, that Paul in verse 3 would not be
taking into account any of the provisions that may obtain
when the woman is subjected to a certain kind of action on
the part of her husband. He does not take account of what
the woman may properly do when another complex of factors
enters into her situation. We can also see the reason why: it
would detract from the real point of his illustration and
thoroughly perplex the course of his argument. His illustra-
tion was perfectly good and universally valid within the condi-
tions presupposed and envisaged. In like manner, the bearing
of this passage upon our problem would be greatly simplified,
for it would be perfectly apparent that Paul would not be
reflecting upon the question as to what the woman may do in
the event of adultery on the part of her husband any more than
is he reflecting upon what the woman might do under the
Mosaic law if she were divorced by her husband. We could
plead the obvious omission of reference to some Mosaic provi-
sions as proof that the text was not intended to prescribe a
rule to be applied to all conditions and circumstances and,
consequently, as not providing us with any light on the law
of God as it applies in the case of adultery.
It must be remembered that this is a distinctly possible
interpretation of Romans 7:2, 3. It should not be ruled out
as unreasonable. This fact should be given due consideration
as we view all angles of our question. For if, on the one hand,
the legitimacy of divorce and remarriage on the ground of
adultery is maintained and if, on the other, the type of treat-
ment accorded to Romans 7:2, 3 in this article does not com-
mend itself, then a reasonable resolution of the difficulty may
be secured by adopting this interpretation.
The present writer is not ready, however, to adopt such a
view of Romans 7:2, 3 and therefore not prepared to rest the
solution upon such an interpretation. To say the least, it is
possible that Paul, though having the Mosaic law very dis-
tinctly in mind, intends nevertheless to assert a principle that
is universally valid and operative, and operative therefore even
when the permissions of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 have been
abrogated. Since this is so, we may not allow the provisions
of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to determine our interpretation and
application of the principles enunciated. To make our inter-
pretation dependent upon the assumption that certain provi-
sions are regarded by Paul as in operation, when we may not
be warranted in making this assumption, would be precarious.
I t would also appear that there is a much more reasonable
and cogent consideration why Paul should have referred to
the woman in this case rather than to the man. I t is the use
which he is to make of the analogy. The doctrine he is
illustrating is the death of the believer to the law by the body
of Christ and the believer's union with Christ in the power
of his resurrection. The main point of the similitude is that
the woman is released from the law of her husband by his
death and is therefore at liberty to be married to another.
And the doctrine illustrated is that the believer is freed from
the law by the death of Christ so that he may be married to
another, the risen Christ. I t is apparent that in the similitude
it is only the woman who can appropriately represent the
believer because in the union of the believer with Christ it is
Christ who takes the place of the husband and therefore the
woman must take the place of the believer.
Furthermore, there is the consideration arising from
I Corinthians 7:39, which is practically identical with Romans
7:2. I n the former passage we cannot suppose that any of
the peculiar conditions or provisions of Deuteronomy 24:1-4
are in view: Paul is looking at the marital relation from the
standpoint of the principles and provisions that are perma-
nently operative and binding in the Christian economy. I t
is entirely more feasible to regard Romans 7:2, 3 as parallel
in this respect to I Corinthians 7:39, and that both passages
will have to be interpreted and applied in the same way in
reference to the question of divorce. It may also be added
that in seeking to harmonise I Corinthians 7:39 with the
position that adultery is a legitimate ground of divorce
the same treatment would have to be accorded this passage
and the same line of argument applied as in the case of Romans
(to be continued)
^ s
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